Alice in Electronic Wonderland

"If there's no meaning in it," said the King, "that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn't try to find any." (Carroll, AW, ch. 12)

Business for Today

  1. Email accounts: problems and questions, routine for posting messages
  2. Subscribing to Victoria, next trio of reports
  3. A brief word about citing electronic sources in class materials: go to the following URL--
  4. About next week's readings

The Readings on Hypertext and Critical Theory

  1. How familiar are you with the terms from postructuralist theory?
  2. Explain how Landow uses the following: open text, de-centering, network, readerly and writerly text.
  3. For another way of studying these concepts, try going to the sample chapter from Hypertext on the web and looking at the overviews on Critical Theory and Hypertext.
Richard Lanham

A UCLA English Professor and specialist in rhetoric, Lanham has often speculated with good humor on the significance of cultural trends that others are predicting will ruin society. He makes the case that the computer is a "rhetorical device," a natural for people in English Studies (yeah, right!).

The following paragraph is a brief excerpt from the sample chapter of his The Electronic Book:

"A rhetorical education, while reminding us of the inevitable circumstantiality of all human judgment, shows us how we can control and offset that circumstantiality. G.B. Kerferd remarks, in his book on the Greek Sophists, that it is not two-sided argument per se that distinguishes rhetorical education but the insistence that the same person take both sides, first one then the other. That necessary lesson in toleration and self-understanding undergirds civic education in a secular democracy."

The technology of hypertext, it seems to me, fits right in with the goals of a rhetorical (and literary) education, at least in so far as Landow's predictions of hypertext's significance are sound. Acclimating to an environment of de- and re-centering texts is what you learn to do when you learn about interpretation. What do you think of Lanham's "big" claim that a rhetorical education can help develop a toleration for indeterminacy and, consequently, a special "understanding" of self (and society?).

Now, for something completely different, let's look at the views of a skeptic.

    P. Dyck's "Hypertext and Theory" website.
  1. Go to on-line reading schedule for this class (URL= "").
  2. Click on the link to Dyck's site (under today's date).
  3. Find out why Dyck is skeptical about Landow's conclusions. What does Dyck think about the potential of hypertext?
  4. This exercise is also good practice in navigating around a fairly simple hypertext.

What does Lewis Carroll have to do with all this?

    Let me try to explain . . .
  1. Alice in Wonderland has been an oft reinterpreted text. It illustrates (as many another text could do as well) the kind of "de-centering" that goes on in interpretation all the time, but with some texts more explicitly than with others. Here are just a few of the "contexts" in which the book has been discussed:
  2. Does this book reflect or illustrate some of these issues of textuality Landow and others are connecting to hypertext? One could argue that one way to look at Carroll's playful books is to see them as being about "de-centering." Carroll's "nonsense" just might exploit or play with some of the qualities of textual systems Landow describes. Perhaps we can use it to test the claims--or at least to illustrate the kind of fun and frustration, play and resistance, one encounters when navigating a hypertext.
  3. If one looks at a definition of "nonsense," it begins (to me, at any rate) to sound like the dizzying effects of hypertext and postructuralist interpretation: "For nonsense, in the writings of Lewis Carroll, at any rate, does not mean gibberish; it is not chaos, but the opposite of chaos. It is a closed field of language in which the meaning of any single unit is dependent on its relationship to the system of the other constituents. Nonsense is 'a collection of words or events which in their arrangement do not fit into some recognized system,' but which constitute a new system of their own." (Michael Holquist, "What is a Boojum?, Nonsense and Modernism" (1969), in Norton Critical Edition of Alice in Wonderland). The only thing to add here, is that system-switching is what goes on in rhetorical play and also what Alice has to put up with all the time.
  4. What games are played in AW? Are they analogous to the gaming that hypertextual reading claims to represent?
  5. Certainly, in its "recenterable" properties, Carroll's book demonstrates how context helps to determine meaning of text. To end class, explore other contexts for reading Carroll (try the Lewis Carroll Home Page), and come up with at least one comment on AW to post to the class on email.
Back to Reading Schedule for LIT: 400